Skip to main content

Boycott a sting to Israeli apartheid

By Yousef Munayyer
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 2223 GMT (0623 HKT)
Palestinian children play in front of a house in Gaza in November that was damaged in an Israeli army operation in 2012.
Palestinian children play in front of a house in Gaza in November that was damaged in an Israeli army operation in 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions
  • Yousef Munayyer: Good news for boycott, divestment and sanctions movement
  • Munayyer: Like South Africa did, Israel practices apartheid; Palestinians are denied rights
  • He says arguments against boycotting S. African regime are used against boycotting Israel

Editor's note: Yousef Munayyer is the executive director of the Palestine Center and the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development.

(CNN) -- In a historic decision this week, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, endorsing Palestinian civil society's call for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and ends abuses against Palestinian human rights.

The decision by the American Studies Association, a group of academics involved in the study of U.S. culture and history, to boycott collaborations with institutions is important. The ASA is one of the first major U.S. academic groups to take this step, and it sends a strong message to Israeli intellectuals and elites that their nation's policies will lead only to international isolation.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) was started by Palestinian political parties, trade unions and political movements in 2005. Signatories include refugees, Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The legitimacy of the movement's tactics comes into sharp focus in the light of Nelson Mandela's death and the struggle in South Africa against apartheid.

Yousef Munayyer
Yousef Munayyer

Today, Israel practices apartheid. It's a system of unjust laws enforced by the gun to restrict the human rights of one group -- Palestinians -- with the aim of keeping political power in the hands of another demographic group -- Israeli Jews.

These violations of Palestinians' rights include the denial of repatriation to refugees, restrictions on residency, the demolition of homes, destruction and seizure of land and property, restrictions on movement and discrimination in allocation of resources.

Many supporters of Israel are rehashing the same arguments against BDS that apologists of the South African regime made decades ago. Perhaps the most common criticism is that Israel is not the worst regime in the world -- boycotts based on human rights concerns should focus on the worst violators first and not unfairly single out Israel. The same reasoning was made against the movement to divest from South Africa.

Two Stanford professors argued in an op-ed in 1979: "White South Africans have often been harsh in their dealings with black people but there is nothing like the mass terror characteristic of communist countries and of many African dictatorships. ... In South Africa, there has been nothing comparable to the mass expulsions of ethnic minorities that have stained the post-World War II history of countries as varied as Burma, Uganda, India, Algeria, Palestine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Burundi and Angola."

South Africa may not have engaged in the bloodletting that happened in 1970s Burundi, but does that mean other nations should not have risen up and acted against apartheid?

The authors of the op-ed say that blacks never had it as good as they do under apartheid. Blacks in South Africa, they wrote, are "among the best paid, best educated, most urbanized blacks in Africa."

This classic colonialist trope is often unsurprisingly echoed by Israel's supporters, who argue that Palestinians under Israeli rule are similarly privileged compared with their Arab kin.

Palestinian keys to returning home
Palestinian team exits peace talks
Kerry prods Israel, Palestinians on peace

The effort to distract from Israeli human rights abuses by pointing to human rights abuses elsewhere is simply aimed at silencing criticism of Israel.

The movement chooses boycotts, divestments and sanctions as a strategy in part because other strategies have proved fruitless. Armed struggle has not worked. As in the case of South Africa, a native, stateless population was pitted against a highly industrialized and militarized state that had the backing of Western powers, and it led to bloody repression of Palestinians.

And negotiations have acted just as a cover for continued Israeli colonization. The Israelis use their position as the stronger party, backed by the United States, to impose their will on the Palestinians. If the Palestinians reject these unfair proposals, they are promptly blamed for the absence of peace despite being the occupied party.

There is a second argument we've heard in recent days against BDS and the vote of the American Studies Association. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas -- when he was in South Africa for Mandela's memorial -- said he supports the boycott of Israeli settlement products but not the boycott of the state of Israel itself.

Some reflexive Israel supporters jumped on this comment to argue that those who endorse the BDS movement are being "more Palestinian" than the chairman of the PLO.

It's not very useful to boycott settlements in the occupied territories without boycotting the state that supports them. Israel's colonial enterprise is not directed from the hilltops of the West Bank but from the corridors of power inside Israel's government.

The state provides funding, defense and infrastructure to ensure Israel settlements grow and thrive. And, while settlements might be the biggest single challenge to Palestinian territorial contiguity, they are but one facet of a system of oppression that features a range of abuses from discrimination and displacement to denial of refugee rights.

But it makes some sense that the chairman of the PLO would make such a remark. Abbas, who leads the West Bank Palestinian Authority, is engaged in U.S.-led negotiations with Israel.

He relies heavily on Western donor dollars to pay his employees and security services. That funding, in the past, has routinely been used as a coercive force any time Abbas even moderately disagreed with U.S. and Israeli whims. This has compromised the independence of the Palestinian Authority's decision making for years.

If Abbas came out in full support of BDS, he'd immediately be accused of "incitement" by his Israeli counterpart. He might even get a phone call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reminding him who pays his bills.

When understood in context, Abbas' comment is not a reflection of the broader Palestinian opinion on BDS but rather a product of the bankrupt U.S.-led negotiations system that makes boycotts, divestment and sanctions so necessary.

BDS is growing, but at only 8 years old, it's still a nascent movement. Victories are piling up, however, and this path continues to be the most likely method of putting pressure on Israel to end its version of apartheid.

Years from now, we will look back at moments, such as the American Studies Association's decision, just as we can look back today on the 1979 argument against fighting South African apartheid. And we'll remember who chose to be on the right side of history.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Yousef Munayyer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT